In very nearly every police shooting we see on American TV, the victim is black. Those are the only cases that are widely reported, and the only cases acted upon by the Black Lives Matter movement. Does either the media reporting or the public activism in the streets reflect the reality of the situation? Are black people being deliberately killed by police in preference to killing white people?
Actually, it is the diametric opposite of reality on the ground.
Police in the USA shoot and kill twice as many white people as black.
In 2015, The Washington Post launched a real-time database to track fatal police shootings, and the project continues this year. As of Sunday, 1,502 people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers since Jan. 1, 2015. Of them, 732 were white, and 381 were black.
An attempt is made to obfuscate the actual figures by invoking the ratio of blacks to whites in the general population, as if that bears on the matter. It does not; the argument is statistically invalid. The correct statistical base is the ratio of blacks to whites amongst those who were confronted by armed police. You’ll find that it is the reverse of the ratio in general population (the statistics vary considerably with time, type of situation, and geographic location, but at worst, there is numerical equality of blacks, whites, and Hispanics).
That in itself is cause for concern, but that is not the point. Where more blacks than whites were confronted, yet more whites than blacks were killed, the argument that blacks are killed by police more frequently and more preferentially than whites fails completely.
In all situations in the USA in the last decade where police officers are looking at a suspect over the barrel of a gun, they are more likely to pull the trigger if the target suspect is white and restrain themselves if the target is black.
And then look at the ratio of whites to blacks amongst the shooters compared with whites and blacks in the police generally, and you have another statistical nuance. Both white and black police officers show a tendency to shoot whites rather than blacks in any given confrontation.
If we look at homicides in the USA generally, yet another nuanced picture emerges. From 2010 to 2014, the total number of murders and non-negligent homicides remained at more or less 14,000 per annum, so I’ll take 2013 as reasonably representative year for our purposes here. According to FBI statistics, in 2013, 3005 white people were murdered; they were killed by, inter alia, 2509 white people and 409 black people. In the same year, 2491 black people were murdered, and the racial breakdown of the offenders was 189 white and 2245 black. In other words, in society at large, excluding police action, it is clear that people tend by a great margin to murder their own, so the racial argument raised in the police shooting case is absent in the bigger picture. It can be seen as tacit support for Darwin’s assertion that competition for dominance occurs mostly within groups and not between them.
Be that as it may, if we now look at the homicides in general society, and express the number of murders by race we find that a disproportionately high number of blacks commit murders. This far exceed their portion of the general population, so if the police act fairly in arresting murderers, they will be found to be restraining blacks more frequently than the numbers of blacks presenting in wider society. It’s important to note that in this example, there is no racial bias; the police are reacting post hoc to crimes that have been committed without reference to the race of the perpetrator. However, it is equally important to note that given the statistics available to law enforcement, they would be foolish and misguided if they were to ignore the race of the victim in profiling the probable murderer.
There are multiple layers to this problem, and we can’t look to political activists for the right answers I’m afraid.
1. My observations in the US lead me to think that blacks particularly (but not only) have an attitude towards civil discipline and the police which tends to get them noticed for the wrong reasons. Then, because of this attitude, police overreact, and then the attitude gets even worse. Catch 22.
2. The numbers show us that policemen of all races in the US restrain their trigger fingers when the target is black. I guess this is a direct result of the socio-political pressure they feel. Somehow, to level the playing field, we have to get the police to be more rational when they have the power of life and death over a suspect, but that’s also a tough one because the suspect is perceived to have the same power over the police officer. Everything happens in split seconds in a highly charged atmosphere. No easy answers when it comes to human nature…
Now we come to the real issue: Media bias. During the time that the US media have been so graphically reporting homicide by police on black victims, more than twice as many whites were killed by the same police forces. None was reported in the media. They were completely ignored as if white lives are less important than black lives.
That is racial bias of the worst, most insidious kind.